Syed Kamall, a leading MEP and a recent visitor to this parish, has written an article for Venture Beat. The basic thrust is, amongst other things, that there are not enough programmers. He gives examples of private sector solutions which read as evidence there is a problem, then suggests visa liberalisation.
The article is stuffed with words like “hurdles”, “immediate problem”, “now!”, “bootcamp”, “12 week course”, “changes so frequently”, “keep up”, “fast moving developments”, “tech moves so quickly”, “starving firms”, and “quickly fall behind”. It is clear Syed wants to communicate that he understands the urgency of the situation and the speed required in the context of technology firms. I’m not entirely convinced.
First, I am skeptical of whether formal education teaches programming, or whether programming is an innate aptitude. My computer science education is certainly a part of what made me a good programmer and I have met very good people who have retrained from other industries and become successful programmers. I have also met people who have had years of training and still lack the fundamental skill of breaking a process down into steps, despite passing various exams and tests. I graduated with such people and not with dramatically higher grades either. Formal education seems ill suited to capture, transmit, and assess the nuances of this particular skill. The ease with which code is plagiarised is one factor, as is the process of mugging up for exams, but the real problem is that the skill itself is a form of implicit knowledge which you cannot simply write down.
Further, learning to program is not an easy process. It is damned hard and no single resource or bootcamp or whatever will help you navigate a route by which you can deliver value. You have to get there on your own and that is, by definition, not something that anyone else can easily help with.
Second, I am skeptical of the prescription. Skills demands change fast because technologists constantly seek to innovate and do similar jobs better each time they do them. More dramatically, projects are started and stopped regularly and resource levels expand and fall at each stage. Liberalising visa criteria may allow a transfer of talent from abroad but moving house, let alone country, is a big deal. If a startup needs a programmer “now!” then is the lead time for a global relocation sufficiently short? Are relocation packages a good use of capital for a startup? I am all for more visa’s but I can think of better ways for startups to spend money.
There is a locally sourced alternative: the freelance market. Freelancers are flexible, offering terms to match the duration of the project, or just the duration of peak demand. Although there is a culture of quarterly renewals, most can actually be fired on zero notice, which is perfect for high risk startups. I have been on a zero hours contract with a meaningless 1 week notice ever since I graduated. Freelancers are constantly judged on results, so merit shows up readily on the CV. Freelancers are rewarded with a risk premium on their daily rate and a household with two freelancers will quickly join the global 1%. The risks are easily mitigated simply by being honest, and sufficiently competent relative to one’s price.
How is this better? A more dynamic market will make better use of the resources that exist already, which would include any global resources as well. Freelancers move between firms more often, and take more than one contract at a time. They also tend to travel longer distances, frequently staying overnight or living away, in order to pull in their premium rates. They are set up to be flexible. If the problem is getting programmers quick enough then freelancers represent talent on tap.
How do you get more freelancers? Freelancing is also something that people will arrive at themselves, you will struggle to create more from thin air just as you will struggle to create programmers from thin air. But the present situation for freelancers is exceptional. Freelancers are persecuted by tax authorities that struggle to fit them into a binary model of employees or employers. Freelancers are neither and both. If caught by arbitrary rules then their deductable expenses are limited and they are defined as employees, but they pay their own employers national insurance contributions – the rarely visible 13.5% job tax. If such barriers were removed, there would be a flood of people “going freelance”.
Syed should look in detail at the barriers that HMRC is presenting to freelancers. He should speak to IPSE – the freelancing union – and their proposal for a new corporate form and recognise that there are people who see the needs of startups and turbulent project life cycles as a business opportunity and have the flexibility demanded, on offer at a competitive market price, if only the market were allowed to operate.